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Buffalo has its own cases of police brutality – especially against people of color

Buffalo has its own cases of police brutality – especially against people of color

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357317 Cirulli  Willet

Cellphone video captured Buffalo Police Officer John Cirulli hitting a handcuffed suspect John T. Willet as he lay face down on the pavement in 2014. Cirulli resigned, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to a year of probation.

Three years ago, the authors of a study alleging discriminatory policing in Buffalo quoted a man named H. McCarthy Gipson as saying he, too, has been stopped in the city for driving while black.

Gipson served as Buffalo's police commissioner from 2006 to almost 2010.

The protestors who set fires and vandalized storefronts around Niagara Square and elsewhere late Saturday were reacting to a fatal example of police brutality from more than 700 miles away, with no connection to Buffalo. But like Minneapolis, Buffalo has its own record of police brutality against people of color.

"Savage dogs," Buffalo Police Lt. Gregory Kwiatkowski called the four African American teenagers he arrested in 2009, after a drive-by shooting using a BB gun.

"Do you like shooting at white kids?" he asked them, according to evidence gathered in his case.

He grabbed one of the handcuffed teens by the neck and slammed him headfirst into a police car. When the teen's friends reacted angrily, he slammed the others into the car, one by one.

A federal judge, William M. Skretny, reminded Kwiatkowski of his words when he sentenced him in December 2018 to four months in prison followed by four months of home confinement. Kwiatkowski had agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, deprivation of rights under color of law, after testifying against two other officers who were accused of turning the BB gun on one of the teens. The other officers were found not guilty.

In November 2014, news cameras caught Officer Corey Krug tackling a man on Chippewa Street, clubbing him with his police baton and then letting him go. Federal prosecutors accused him of using excessive force against Devin Ford but could not obtain guilty verdicts, even after a second trial.

In most cases, the city defends officers accused of brutality in civil cases. But with Ford's lawsuit, the city cut Krug loose, refusing to defend him in Ford's civil rights lawsuit. To City Hall lawyers, Krug crossed the line.

"How can anyone respectfully look at that video and say, 'Oh, that's a public duty performed for the benefit of the citizens of the community?' '' a lawyer for the city argued when Krug and the police union challenged the city's move before New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. The court ruled in the city's favor.

In 2014, Officer John Cirulli was caught on cellphone video kicking and slapping a handcuffed John T. Willet as he lay face down on the pavement. Cirulli resigned, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to a year of probation, after agreeing to help the FBI discourage other officers from doing what he had done.

While they did not strike the victim themselves, two Buffalo police officers are seen on video doing nothing to intervene – one smiles – as a Buffalo cell block attendant attacked the recently arrested Shaun Porter from behind in May 2016. Even as the attendant dragged Porter's limp body into a cell, Officers Joshua T. Craig and Anthony D'Agostino did nothing to stop him or get Porter medical attention.

For months, lawyers for Mayor Byron W. Brown and the police department resisted requests by The Buffalo News to release the video to the public under New York's Freedom of Information Law. When federal prosecutors obtained a conviction against the attendant, Matthew Jaskula, Brown's lawyers still kept the video hidden. The newspaper obtained the video after Porter's lawsuit settled for $300,000.

Hamisu Ango was riding his dirt bike on a city street in 2017 – with a police lieutenant's permission, he says – when an officer manning a Juneteenth festival checkpoint pushed him off the bike and pointed a gun in his face, according to Ango. With patches of skin now bloody red, Ango explained he had received permission to ride.

The officer made a call, then let Ango go on his way.

"Why did you do that?" Ango said he asked the cop.

Ango said the cop responded: "Get the (vulgarity) out of here. You are already beat up enough."

Later, Ango went to a nearby store and retrieved its video of the scene. The recording backed up only part of his story. It didn't show the cop pushing him, and you can't make out the object in the officer's hands as he raises his arms toward Ango at close range. Still, the video might have helped with a lawsuit his attorney filed, had they ascertained the officer's name. Without it, they could not proceed.

The study into Buffalo's discriminatory policing was completed in 2017 for the local chapter of Black Lives Matter and presented to the state Attorney General's Office. It alleged, among other things, that the police retaliate against people who attempt to film their actions.

Leonard F. Jacuzzo, who is not a member of a minority group, knows what that's like. He was living in Buffalo and teaching a class in ethics and logic at SUNY Fredonia in 2013 when he grew tired of the spillover of patrons outside Toro, a bar on Elmwood Avenue at the time. The off-duty police officers providing security at the bar knew he had been a critic and caught him one night taking a picture of the scene with his cellphone.

“Why did you take my picture?” a stocky officer asked, according to Jacuzzo.

“Because you are a public servant, and I can,” Jacuzzo responded.

He said that he was thrown to the ground and knees were planted in his chest and his ear as two officers wrenched the phone from his hand. When the officers finally had the device – Jacuzzo never saw it again – he was wrestled into handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct.

He came to learn that the state Liquor Authority forbids police officers from having any direct interest in the sale of alcohol, so the officers, even while off-duty, should not have been moonlighting for a bar.

The fact Buffalo police still allowed such work was on glaring display in May 2014. Two off-duty officers providing security at a bar near the University at Buffalo's South Campus failed to arrest the manager after he pushed a patron down a flight of stairs, inflicting a fatal brain injury.

Instead, the officers had the patron's near-lifeless body moved outside of Molly's Pub. Then they and the manager went to see what the security cameras captured, and a piece of the recording equipment landed in the trash. Finally, an officer handcuffed the unconscious patron and then the patron's friend when he intervened.

The victim, Air National Guardsman William C. Sager Jr., who was white, never recovered. He died at age 28.

The officer who applied the cuffs, Robert Eloff, was sentenced to three months in prison and three months of home confinement after pleading to federal charges. The other, Adam E. O'Shei, was suspended, both with and without pay, and is back on active duty.

Brown said little publicly about the Molly's fiasco and has said little about other high-profile cases of police aggression. But in the latest episode, a cellphone video of the arrest of Quentin Suttles, the mayor said he hopes the police department expedites its internal investigation.

The video shows two officers holding down the man, who is on the ground near the back of a car. One of the officers hits him in the head several times in the attempt to handcuff him.

"Get off of him!" an unseen woman yells. "Stop! You're going to hurt him. Get off of him!"

The officer tells the man to "let it go."

"Like others, I am concerned by what I saw on that video," Brown said in a statement May 12, the day after the Buffalo Police Advisory Board called attention to the incident.

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